Ex-Mubarak spy chief shakes up Egypt election

Omar Suleiman was Mubarak's point man for relations with Israel; says popular demand prompted his decision to run for president.

Egyptian presidential candidate Omar Suleiman 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Egyptian presidential candidate Omar Suleiman 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Cairo’s former intelligence chief and point man with Israel, Omar Suleiman, said Friday he would run for Egypt’s presidency, reversing an announcement he had made just the day before.
Suleiman said overwhelming popular demand prompted his decision to become a candidate in Egypt’s first free presidential vote just before nominations close on Sunday. He had briefly pulled out of the race Thursday after saying he had failed to overcome administrative regulations required to run.
The 74-year-old said he would participate in the nomination “regardless of my previous statement about the difficulties and challenges,” adding: “I promise you, my brothers and sisters, to complete the goals of the revolution and provide security and stability to the Egyptian people.”
The decision by former president Hosni Mubarak’s spy chief has shaken up the Egyptian presidential race, in which the powerful Muslim Brotherhood had also pledged not to run a candidate before reversing its position last week.
Islamists and relative liberals are now trying to decipher the motives of a man long viewed as the power behind his ousted boss.
Born into poverty in Upper Egypt, Suleiman served as an officer in the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War before joining Egypt’s intelligence apparatus in the 1980s. In 1993, he was appointed intelligence chief, a post he held for nearly two decades before Mubarak’s ouster in a popular uprising over a year ago.
Suleiman was Mubarak’s most trusted envoy to Israel and is well-connected in Jerusalem. US diplomatic cables released last year by WikiLeaks showed that in 2005 he had promised Israel he would prevent Hamas from taking control of Gaza in elections scheduled for the following year (the Islamist group won a decisive victory and subsequently seized control of the Strip).
After Gilad Schalit’s capture by Gaza-based terrorists the following year, Suleiman served as mediator between Israel and Hamas in negotiations for the IDF soldier’s release.
The WikiLeaks cables quoted a US intelligence analyst as saying there is “no question that Israel is most comfortable” with Suleiman as a potential successor to Mubarak.
Like the former president, Suleiman has kept far from the public gaze during the past year of turbulent military rule.
Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president in the dying days of his administration, one of several failed concessions to stem the revolt against poverty, corruption and draconian security control.
To many of those who led the uprising, Suleiman’s reappearance is proof that a powerful security establishment is determined to reverse a transition to democratic rule before the army hands power to a civilian president at the end of June.
Suleiman’s shadowy persona and his call during the revolt for protesters to go home make him anathema to young revolutionaries pressing for a new era of accountability and transparency.
“The youth will not let Omar Suleiman become president. The revolution is still alive and we will march to Tahrir Square again if necessary,” said Mohamed Fahmy, a revolutionary socialist who played a role in galvanizing last year’s protests.
“The very idea that he is running is presumptuous. He should be in prison,” said democracy activist and commentator Nawara Negm.
A Twitter hashtag message chain about Suleiman was called “Silly Man.” Another activist said Egypt’s revolutionary chant of “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” would switch to “Bread, Blanket and Prison Food” under Suleiman.
In a statement circulated by his campaign aides, Suleiman said public demand had persuaded him to run if he could obtain the necessary registration of 30,000 supporters by Saturday.
The statement to “citizens of Egypt” said: “I have been shaken by your strong position. The call you have directed is an order and I am a soldier who has never disobeyed an order.”
Suleiman’s supporters thronged the election committee’s offices in Cairo on Saturday amid tight security as he arrived to begin the paperwork, the state news agency, MENA, reported.
A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said the army and Mubarak-era remnants had been bussing thousands of company employees to Cairo to provide many of the 30,000 signatures Suleiman needed to be a registered candidate.
“He is the old regime and would only run the country from a security perspective,” said the FJP official, Medhat Hadad. “What kind of a revolutionary vision do you expect someone like him to have?” Hadad said he believed the army was openly supporting Suleiman’s candidacy to cast its real preferred candidate, the nationalist and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, in a better light.
The return of the man seen by many Egyptians as the mastermind of Mubarak’s autocratic rule comes as discontent grows over the insecurity that has endured since his removal.
The economy is still reeling from the turmoil of the uprising, and Coptic Christians and secularists are alarmed at the growing political dominance of Islamists, who were repressed by Mubarak.
Hundreds of Suleiman supporters staged a rally in Cairo on Friday carrying banners reading “Suleiman, save Egypt!” and “We don’t want the Islamists.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which swept Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in decades, announced a week ago that it was fielding a candidate for the presidency, reversing an earlier pledge not to.
Its candidate, deputy Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, declared last week that introducing Shari’a [Islamic] law would be his “first and final” goal if he wins the vote in May and June.
On Friday, thousands of supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail – who has emerged as one of the frontrunners for the race – demonstrated against what they called an official plot to stop the hardline Islamist from contesting the election.
Egypt’s electoral commission said Saturday it had received verification that Abu Ismail’s mother had US citizenship, a status that will likely disqualify him from the race.
An official said the commission would give a verdict on Abu Ismail’s eligibility after the Sunday deadline for all presidential candidates to submit their applications to run.
In a poll in March – before Suleiman and the Brotherhood’s candidate emerged as contenders – Amr Moussa was frontrunner with Abu Ismail in second place.
The three-week campaign season begins April 30, with elections kicking off May 23.
Reuters contributed to this report.